MEATPACKING began as a local business in the colonial era, but by the dawn of the twenty-first century it had become a huge industry. The first meatpacking business began in 1692, when John Pynchon of Springfield, Massachusetts, began buying hogs and shipping the meat to Boston for the growing city population and the provisioning of ships. Colonial farmers at first marketed their surplus meat in coastal towns and in the West Indies, and later the growing cities and the plantations of the South provided additional outlets. Early meatpackers were given that name because they literally packed cuts of pork and beef into barrels with brine. Meatpacking in those days was essentially a seasonal industry; there was no mechanical refrigeration to aid in keeping the meat from spoiling. Even when salt treatment was used, operations were confined almost entirely to the winter months. The custom was to pack meat through the winter, pile the barrels on the ground outside, and then sell in the spring.
Packinghouses were originally concentrated in New England and on the western frontiers of the Atlantic states. The shift westward began in the nineteenth century with the development of the livestock industry in the Middle West. Settlers found that the new land grew corn abundantly, but that there was no way to sell the grain to the growing industrial centers of the East; shipment over-land cost more than the grain was worth. Ohio settlers found the answer in feeding their corn to cattle that were driven over the Alleghenies to the seaboard, or by stuffing some fifteen bushels of corn into a pig and subsequently packing the pork into a barrel. Prior to 1825, most beef, pork, and mutton from the Middle West moved eastward on the hoof, since the era of canals and railroads and a major meatpacking industry was yet to come. Local butchers predominated in the meat business. Slaughter took place close to the ultimate consumers because of the impossibility of storing fresh meat or shipping it any considerable distance—except occasionally during the winter in the northern areas—though the introduction of ice allowed for curing in the summer months.
Commercial meatpacking came into existence around 1818 in Cincinnati, soon called "Porkopolis" because by 1850, it hosted 27 percent of meatpacking in the West. Chicago, Louisville, and Saint Louis soon became rivals. During the Civil War, Chicago reached first rank, largely because of favorable rail and water transportation facilities. Beef had come to equal pork in importance, and competition developed in Kansas City, Omaha, Sioux City, and Saint Paul, in particular. As the livestock population grew in the West and the human population increased in the East, refrigerated packing plants were built to bridge the meat gap from the farm to the table. In the 1870s, several large packing firms with headquarters at Chicago came to dominate the U.S. meatpacking industry, namely Armour and Company, Swift and Company, and Libby, McNeill and Libby. After the Civil War, the vast western rangelands became a new major center for beef cattle because of the advancing railroads. Until 1865, meat-canning establishments, which had originated in Massachusetts and Maine in 1815, were small and located in the East. Meat-canning got a considerable boost through the Civil War in providing for the army, and after 1868, P. D. Armour and others developed a canned corned beef and roast beef trade. Other companies packed ox and pork tongues and potted meats, chicken, rabbits, ham, and soups.
Numerous technical and transportation improvements pushed the development of meatpacking. After 1880, packers could use efficient railroad refrigerator cars to transport fresh meat from as far west as Omaha to New York City without spoilage. Improvements in refrigeration allowed the marketing of less salty ham and bacon, less heavily smoked meat, and glandular meats throughout the United States and year-round by 1900. Freezing later became a method for bulk storage of raw material for subsequent production of canned and dried items, as well as sausages, meat dishes, and soups. Efficient motor trucks, and the extension of hard-surfaced roads, facilitated the trucking of livestock. Other cost changes largely eliminated the locational advantage of large rail terminals, and slaughter became feasible at almost any location. The industry further profited by using an ever-increasing number of by-products, such as fertilizers, leather, wool, glue, and many pharmaceuticals, including hormones and sterols. Furthermore, meatpackers hired poor immigrants and African Americans, who had few other work opportunities, and paid them poorly to work in often brutal conditions; such labor practices boosted profits for the industry.
In 1906 Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle focused attention on unsavory conditions in the packing plants and led to the federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. The Jungle may have led to some reforms, but working conditions in meatpacking plants remained dangerous and often wretched, though they improved for a few decades. Employers squashed unionization efforts in 1919–1920, but in the 1930s, the United Packing house Workers of America formed to represent meatpacking workers. The union made great strides from the 1930s into the 1950s, surviving the political oppression that turned many unions rightward during the McCarthy period, and making efforts to break down racial segregation in plants. However, in the 1950s, conditions began to turn worse again for workers. On the one hand, meatpacking corporations began moving out of the great industrial centers; on the other, new firms arose that used labor-saving technology, reducing the need for workers. A 1986 strike at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota, mobilized tens of thousands of supporters throughout the region, and garnered nationwide attention. However, without the backing of its national leadership, the local union that struck, P-9, could not withstand the combined efforts of the company's use of strikebreakers and the state governor's deployment of the National Guard. By the end of the twentieth century, meatpacking work was done mostly by an immigrant and impoverished workforce laboring in dirty, dangerous surroundings, as the decline of organized labor and the rise of government deregulation pushed the industry into a state not so different from the days of Sinclair's The Jungle.
Halpern, Rick. Down on the Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Chicago's Packing houses, 1904–1954. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997
Horowitz, Roger. "Negro and White, Unite and Fight!" A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930–90. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997.